Hutchinson marks its salt centennial

Sunday, September 27, 1987

Editor's note: Few events have had as much of an impact on Hutchinson as the discovery of salt in the area, which occurred 100 years ago today. To mark this historic date, The News today begins a series of stories chronicling the rise of the industry that gave the Salt City its name.

Salt never really was discovered in Reno County.

Oh, the stuff was found, all right, but "discovered" isn't the right word.

We sort of settled for salt.

What the good citizens of Hutchinson wanted, what the newspaper wanted, and what drilling-rig owner and all-around entrepreneur Ben Blanchard wanted was gas and coal. None of those three ever quite got over the disappointment.

Blanchard was a land speculator and promoter, what was known in those days as a "boomer," and he boomed South Hutchinson for all he was worth. It was his pet project, a community he created and platted in 1886.

He started numerous building projects there - manufacturing operations and homes, as well as office buildings. What one newspaper, a rival of The Hutchinson News, once described as a low-elevation "frog-pond" became a busy little town of more than 1,000 souls in about a year.

But as good as the real estate boom was in those days, Blanchard evidently thought it could be better. Anything that could shoot already inflated land prices even higher meant money, and oil or natural gas must have seemed like just the thing.

So around June of 1887, Blanchard began an experimental gas well in South Hutchinson, carefully shielding the site from the public eye. For months the drilling went on with no word of what was found.

Blanchard could not have been pleased as his drills clogged with quicksand

- the drill had to be moved a mile to a clearer site - and then chewed slowly

through hundreds of feet of rock.

But in public, he never commented on the progress of the drill. Instead, he let newspaper editor Ralph Easley - who was eager to announce a major gas find - draw his own conclusions.

Which he did. in headlines.

"We Will Have Light!" proclaimed a special-edition promotion printed by The Hutchinson Daily News Sept. 22. The layered headlines continued: "We Will Have Fuel! We Want the Earth and All There Is in It! Hutchinson Has a Dead Certainty of Gas and Coal Before Christmas."

The writer based his arguments more on optimism than core samples. "Draw a line through the Pennsylvania and Ohio wells and you strike Hutchinson," he wrote; but after every sensationalized story, Blanchard must have sold more of his South Hutch lots.

Less than a week later, Sept. 27, the drill bit plunged through a layer of shale into near-pure rock salt.

Nobody was surprised. Salt had already been found all over Kansas, even in surface outcroppings in some places. Drilling had uncovered a salt vein in Ellsworth.

So the salt was nice, and for several days the newspaper reported the find along with prophecies of great mines and industry to come. And then it settled back to await further developments from what was still referred to as "the gas well."

But what developed was more salt. The bed was first thought to be 25 feet

thick, then 40, 50, then up to 200 feet thick as the drill pressed downward.

By mid-October several out-of-town investors were reported to have taken an interest in the salt find. Articles ran on the purity of it (supposedly over 99 percent) and the amount, which was claimed to be the largest deposit in the country.

On the 22nd of the month, a rumor led to brief gush of oil hysteria, but the next day the newspaper grudgingly revealed that only a small pocket of oil had been found, not enough to develop commercially. But with each such story, the paper also printed the opinions of the drilling crew that paying amounts of oil, coal or gas could be struck any day.

A typical example occurred Dec. 16, when The Daily News reported that, although the well had been closed to visitors, supplies of oil and gas now seemed copious.

"... The flow of gas is steadily increasing, at times driving the drillers from their post," the newspaper reported. "Maybe Ben (Blanchard) wants to make Old Hutch a Christmas gift."

But meanwhile, other Kansas newspapers were taking considerable amusement from the credulous reporting of The Daily News regarding the South Hutchinson well. The duplicity in Blanchard's constant "finds" seemed obvious to them.

Ralph Easley took a few column-inches to respond, defensively, Nov. 2: "They also made fun of the salt until we had three of the largest salt refineries in the United States located that will work fifteen hundred hands ... It affords them fun and Hutchinson the ducats." Those plants had not, in fact, been built yet.

But in Easley's defense, a few ducats did seem to be on the horizon. The discovery of salt in Reno County in 1887 might have been a disappointment to oil-hungry land speculators like Ben Blanchard, but that didn't mean Blanchard or anybody else ignored the find.

The salt tested at about 99 percent pure, it seemed accessible to a drill

from any point in or near the city, and judging from the depth of the vein

Blanchard had discovered, it was well-nigh inexhaustible.

That was good enough news to bring a small crowd of developers from the East Coast and elsewhere to Hutchinson with drills and investment capital in hand.

The salt dust hadn't even settled around Blanchard's gas well before an experienced New York salt manufacturer named W.C. Gouinlock started sinking his own well southeast of Hutchinson.

Gouinlock reached the salt easily, without the quicksand problems that had plagued the first operation, and struck the salt bed Dec. 16.

The first commercial salt produced in Hutchinson was evaporated by Gouinlock from water pumped into the well March 24, 1888. A crowd of about 5,000 showed up to celebrate and take away a sample of Kansas-produced salt.

By then, things were moving quickly. Two other companies had begun to put down wells, and in the year after Blanchard's discovery, salt plants proliferated around Hutchinson and South Hutchinson.

Wyoming Salt Co. was formed in February, 1888, Hutchinson Salt and Manufacturing Co. in March, Crystal Salt Co. in May, Riverside Salt Co. and Diamond Salt Co. in June.

Later in the summer, Hutchinson resident Henry Hegwer built a plant, and by the end of the year more had been constructed in the south, southeast and northeast parts of town, as well as one in South Hutchinson by none other than Ben Blanchard himself. That plant promptly ran into financial trouble and was not completed for three years, when it was purchased by another company.

All of the plants operated on the same principle, although they were of various sizes and even more varied efficiency.

A hole was drilled into the salt deposit, and two layers of pipe set

into the hole, one inside the other. The outside pipe stopped at the top of the deposit; the inside pipe extended all the way to the bottom.

Water was pumped down the outside pipe and into the deposit, where it became saturated with salt. By the time it reached the bottom of the deposit, the water was loaded with about 21/2 pounds of salt per gallon, and the newly made brine was pumped up the inside pipe to the surface.

Once extracted from the ground, the salt water was channeled into big open pans and heated by steam or by coal fires built directly under the pans. As the water boiled away, salt settled to the bottom of the pans.

"Salt jacks" then raked the salt out or lifted it from the evaporator

pans with slotted paddles, letting excess brine drain back into the pan. The

salt was left to dry awhile before being packed in barrels. Typical pay for a

salt jack was $1.25 a day.

Plant capacities were rated in hundreds of barrels. A small, one-pan plant could produce around 80 280-pound barrels a day; a larger operation like Gouinlock's could put out up to 500 barrels.

By 1888 standards, the salt thus produced was remarkably pure, although it would probably get strange looks at the dinner table today.

Other minerals and specks of shale from the salt well, plus rust from iron pipes and rakes, made the salt an off-white color rather than the brilliant white that was produced by better technology later. Open-pan evaporation also tended to produce coarse flakes of salt rather than grains.